The Eclipse Trip, Day 1: Packing and Heading Out

My long-planned trip to see the total solar eclipse finally begins.

My tenth season as a cherry drying pilot officially ended on August 16, leaving me free to begin my vacation. I like to tell people that I get seven months of vacation time each year, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Truth is, when I’m not on contract to dry wet cherry trees (roughly June though August) or warm cold almond trees (roughly March and April), I still do get the occasional flying job. I did two long charters this past week and have another scheduled for next Saturday. Those jobs basically dictated when I could take my vacation.

But more important was timing and location of the total solar eclipse: August 21 along a path that went through central Oregon. I began planning late last year, when I first heard about the eclipse and its path. Although in some years, my cherry season has gone as late as August 25, last year it ended on July 30. That would give me plenty of time to get into position for the event. But Mother Nature fooled all of us this year with a longer than usual winter. Cherry season started late and it looked, at first, as if I’d be on contract until August 23. While I was scrambling to figure out a way to make the 200-mile trip south while still on contract without letting my orchards go without coverage — likely by having one of my other pilots stick around at a huge cost to me — Mother Nature turned up the heat. Contract dates shifted and my last contract was set to end on August 16. Phew.

When I realized that a quick trip wouldn’t be necessary, I planned a week-long vacation and blocked it out on my calendar so I wouldn’t be tempted to book something else. Last year’s vacation started on my last contract day; I had the camper parked and ready to go when my client called to confirm that they’d finished picking. On that trip, I’d gone north into the North Cascades in Washington and British Columbia. It was my first big trip with my first truck camper, The Turtleback. Since then, I’ve downsized a little bit to a newer rig without a pop-out slide. I took it on a weekend-long mushroom hunt back in May, but this would be my first big trip with what I’ve been calling T2.

Packing Up

Over the summer, T2 was home to one of my contract pilots, who camped out in it in Quincy, AZ for about a month. I brought it home and put it away in mid July. Since he’d cleaned it very well, I didn’t do much in it other than strip off the linens and put them and all the towels, etc. through the wash. Busy with other things, I just left the folded up laundry in the camper. Later, I took some of the pots and pans out to finish up the furnishing of my glamping tent setup. (That’s quite a saga and I promise to blog about it soon.) So this week, when I went to look at what needed to be done to prepare for my trip, I found that I needed to do quite a bit of packing.

I started on Thursday and Friday, adding back the things I’d removed and taking inventory of what I had. In addition to food and clothes, I needed a full complement of gear for off-the grid living. I had no desire to park in a KOA-style, full-hookup campground while I was away, so that meant I’d need DC chargers for my devices, my 100-watt inverter in case I wanted to watch a movie on the TV, and my solar panel to keep the batteries charged in the event that I decided to park somewhere for a few days. (And yes, I’ve already decided to get solar panels permanently installed on the roof of this rig; my last one had a panel and it really was convenient.) I decided against bringing my generator since I’d honestly prefer having no power at all over listening to it, even though it’s a very quiet Honda. (I’m still sitting on the fence about getting a generator installed in this rig; my last one had one and it came in handy when my batteries decided to crap out during my long winter trip.)

So little by little I got things packed into T2 on Thursday and Friday. I divided my time between casual packing, running errands, and working on that glamping setup with a handyman friend.

I should mention here that one of the quirks about T2 is that it doesn’t have a queen sized bed like most truck campers. Instead, it has two narrow twins that can be zipped together to form a queen. They are typical camper mattresses — in other words, not very comfortable — and since I sleep on a king bed at home, downsizing to a narrow twin bed is quite a challenge. So on Amazon Prime Day, I took advantage of an offer for a roll-up queen mattress that had gotten very good reviews, planning to pull the two twins and replace them with a queen. The only reason I left them as twin beds for this trip was because I’d invited two different friends to join me and the twin beds made sleeping arrangements easy. While I didn’t really expect either one to say yes — who knew that some people have trouble making time for something as significant as a total solar eclipse viewing? — I figured I’d leave the beds as they were just in case. In the end, I talked myself out of making the switch until my big winter trip. So the new mattress remains rolled up in its box until November.

Eclipse Reminder
Worried that I might forget (as if!) I set up a reminder for the eclipse; it went off on my phone roughly 48 hours before the actual time. I’d originally planned to drive down to a friend’s house near Salem for the eclipse.

Although I’d originally planned to depart first thing Sunday morning, by Friday afternoon it looked like I might be able to pull off a Saturday noon departure. My house-sitter would come on Sunday, but I wasn’t worried much about the garage cats or chickens she’d be taking care of; I have them set up so that short absences would not be a problem. But on Saturday, as I continued to pack and prepare, noon came and went. I admit that I worked at a leisurely pace — one of the things I really like about my life these days is that I’m seldom rushed — but I honestly didn’t expect it to take so long. Keep in mind that I also had to clean house for the house-sitter. I was finally packed with T2 on the truck by 2 PM. After showering, dressing, and gathering together a few more things, Penny and I climbed into the truck. When we left at 3:02 PM, my two 3-month kittens were playing in the front yard; I’d left the big garage door open just enough for them to get in and out.

I made only one stop before heading out of town: Les Schwab to get the tire pressure checked and adjust the tie-down screws. I was heading out of town at 3:33 PM.

First Day’s Drive

Since I doubted that I’d make it all the way to my final destination before nightfall — and I don’t like to drive in unknown territory at night — I plugged a destination along the way into Google Maps on my iPhone: Pendleton, OR.

Pendleton was about 2/3 of the way: a 3-1/2 drive. Google wanted me to drive the usual route south to Tri-Cities and then take a few freeways east. That’s how I often went on my annual migration between Wickenburg, AZ and Quincy, WA and I never was fond of the route — especially the traffic in Richland. Instead, I told Google I’d take the slightly longer way that did the freeway driving up front on I-90 to Moses Lake and then south on farm roads.

I ended up with a fast drive on route 17 almost to Pasco, where I crossed the Snake River near its confluence with the Columbia. Then route 12 to 730. There was a really pretty stretch of road right alongside the Columbia River through one of its many flood-carved gorges and, once again, I thought about taking a boat trip from just downriver from the Priest Rapids Dam to the ocean. All the dams downstream from Priest Rapids have locks, making it very possible to take such a trip. I always wondered if my little boat was up to the task.

A sign and Google announced, almost in unison, that I’d entered Oregon.

I turned away from the river on route 37, which turned out to be a twisty road that wound up a canyon through farmland. There were cut wheat fields on either side of the road, here and there, with a few farm houses and grain elevators every few miles. I had to slow down considerably. One thing about driving with a truck camper on the truck is that it completely changes the truck’s center of gravity, raising it a few feet. Slowing down to take curves is not optional — it’s required. As I drove, I’d glance in the rear view mirrors to watch T2 swaying back and forth. I’d need to remember to open cabinets slowly when I parked for the night.

I rolled into Pendleton about an hour before sunset, not quite sure where I needed to go next. I pulled into the first gas station I came to. In Oregon, fuel is full-service everywhere, although if you drive a diesel truck, they’ll let you fuel it yourself. I’d rather let them do it, so I did. The attendant was a friendly Hispanic guy who took my credit card for the pump while I removed the tie-down screw that made it impossible to open the fuel door. He handed back the card and got the fuel pump going. Then, while I climbed back into the truck to consult my Oregon map, he and another attendant did something I still can’t believe: they cleaned my truck’s windshield.

Oregon Full Service
When they say “full service” at an Oregon gas station, they mean it.

Understand that this is no small task. My truck is big. To reach the windshield, you need a long handle on the washer/squeegee. They didn’t have that. What they did have were stepladders, though, and they pulled those out, one on either side of the truck, and got to work. They chatted as they did the job giving me the impression that they did this all the time.

I honestly don’t know if I paid more to fuel there than at some truck stop near the highway, but I don’t care. There’s something to be said about service.

I climbed back down when the fueling was done and refastened the tie-down screw. I thanked the attendant, wondering, in an off-hand way, if I was supposed to give him a tip. But I am old enough to remember when service like that could be found at every gas station, so I didn’t. He didn’t seem to expect one.

I moved the truck away from the pumps and parked for a moment to program Google Maps on my iPhone. I plugged in my final destination and was told it was about 2 hours away. I figured I’d continue on my route and find a place to park for the night along the way.

First Night’s Campsite

What a lot of folks don’t understand is that camping in public lands is legal unless posted otherwise. So all I needed to do was get into the national forest and find a place to pull off the road for the night.

And no, camping alone in the forest doesn’t scare me. Why should it?

Trouble was, I wasn’t exactly sure how far I was from the national forest or whether there would be suitable camping areas along the way.

Just south of Pendleton on route 395 is mostly farmland and ranches — large expanses of grassy, treeless terrain with rolling hills and the occasional cattle pen. Even if the side roads weren’t gated, my rig would stand out like a sore thumb if parked for the night. I wasn’t worried about the drivers in passing cars seeing me. What I was worried about was settling in for the night and having a rancher or state patrolman tell me I was camping on private property and had to move. I really don’t like driving at night.

So I continued on my way, following the road as it wound up into the hills. There were more and more fir trees as I climbed. Soon I was in forest. I started getting hopeful.

There were other vehicles on the road ahead of me including other campers likely headed south for the same reason I was. Most of them were slower than me and I passed them. I was stuck for a long while behind a truck pulling an ancient fifth wheel as it labored up the curvy mountain road. The sun got lower and lower until it disappeared from view behind a hill. I didn’t see it again that day.

I saw a sign for the Battle Mountain day use area and pulled over. It looked like a day use area — you know, the kind of place with picnic tables and hiking trails — and since those usually prohibit camping, I kept going. Seeing a “Camping 12 Miles” sign right after that confirmed my suspicion; why would they put a sign right there if camping were allowed at the day use area?

Daylight faded.

The campground was a state park site with basic amenities like a level paved parking space, picnic table, and maybe fire pits. I don’t really know because I didn’t get to drive through. A ranger was at the entrance, chatting with the guy who’d pulled in before me. When he left, I rolled up and said, “Campground full?”

“Campground is full,” he confirmed. He then told me that 12 miles back up the road was a day use area that allowed camping.

I told him that I’d assumed it didn’t allow camping because it was a day use area. He said that they were changing rules all over the place. He seemed frustrated. I figured the change was likely connected to the eclipse and meeting the demand of people looking for a place to spend the night.

I asked him what options I had further south. I told him I didn’t need a campground, that I just needed a place to park. He mentioned wide pull-outs along the side of the road. I’d been seeing some of these pull outs and although they were wide enough to park in, traffic would be passing close all night. So when he mentioned forest roads another 20 miles down south, my ears perked up. “Look for the turnoff for Olive Lake,” he told me. “Twenty miles.”

I pulled out and continued south. By now, it was getting dark. I really wanted to park for the night while I could still see what was around me. I drove for about 10 minutes, passing one possible spot along the road along the way. And then paydirt: a large turnout for a forest road.

There was an SUV with a small pull trailer already backed into it, as far away from the road as possible. I didn’t want to intrude. There was a two-track road — the forest road, I guess — leading further into the forest and I started up it. It ended with a gate about 100 yards from the campers. I backed down the way I’d come.

I stopped the truck and got out. There was a woman lounging in a hammock. She had a small dog that barked at me and she laughed. I wondered if she was also traveling alone but then I saw a companion poke his head out of the camper.

“Would you mind if I parked here, too?” I asked. It’s getting too dark for me to continue.”

“Sure,” she called back. “Park wherever you like.”

I moved the truck so the camper’s door faced into the forest, giving them plenty of room while still staying quite a bit off the road. Then I turned off the truck. Simple as that.

First Night Parking
I shot this photo the next morning. The other camper was really backed deep against the woods around the parking area.

The other campers had two dogs: a small one on a leash and a large one that was loose. The little dog barked as little dogs will. Penny wanted to go meet it, but it wanted nothing to do with her. So she met the bigger dog, who came over to be petted. Not wanting to intrude on the other campers and eager to get inside to use the toilet and make dinner, I called Penny back, thanked the other campers, and climbed into T2.

It seemed to be dark within minutes. It was after 8 PM.

I was making dinner when another vehicle pulled in. After trying the road and then backing down, it parked between me and the main road. I saw lights in the back of the vehicle and I assumed the campers were setting up a tent. But later I saw lights on the other side of the SUV campers; whoever was in the new vehicle had set up camp in the forest. It wasn’t until the morning that I saw them: three young guys in a tiny pickup with very little gear. I suspect they camped out under the stars. Ah, to be young again!

Later, a big touring motorcycle pulled in. Boy, was he out of place! I don’t know what he expected to find, but it wasn’t in our makeshift campground. He idled for a while in the parking area, probably consulting a map, and then left.

Dinner First Night
The only thing I hate more than eating off paper plates is washing dishes when I’m tired.

I had a nice dinner of steamed asparagus and reheated leftover chicken breast, followed by some blueberry “ice cream” I’d made at home that morning and stowed in the freezer. I let Penny out for a pee before turning in for the night. The other campers were in their little RV; the lights were on. Overhead, the sky was full of stars. I regretted not having my camera set up for some night photography.

I climbed up to bed a little while later. Although there are two beds and I had Penny’s bed set up on the other one, she insisted on finding space on my bed. She’s a small dog but it’s a small bed and I’m not a small person. My mind is made up: the queen mattress is going into the camper as soon as I get home.

I studied the map for a while, disappointed that my destination is so small that it didn’t appear. But that might be a good thing: maybe other people won’t find it and it’ll be less crowded than I expect.

I turned in at around 9:30. The lights were still on in the RV next door and I could see headlamps bobbing around in the woods beyond them.

What do you think?